The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


No one has yet written a sort of Platonic ideal I have for an essay, namely a copy of one of those lazily trendy articles that says "Hey, let's deconstruct plagiarism for the moment. Maybe it's not so bad" that seems to appear every year in either The New Yorker, or Harper's, or The Atlantic and then selling it to Harper's, the Atlantic, or The New Yorker. But Stephen Moss comes close with his cento on plagiarism. Plagiarism isn't always wrong or a pity. I'd much rather Saul Bellow tell the tale that opens Humboldt's Gift -- of a writer desperately trying to get money owed on a poker game to a gangster, who eventually humiliates him -- than the poor journalist it acutally happened to, who'd been dining out on the story for years, and who was appalled when Bellow had neutralized what would have been the best part of his memoirs. In this case, the genius made something out of the tale that the mediocrity couldn't, and a lot of recent charges of plagiarism stem from the mediocrities' resentment of that fact. Dan Brown did not steal his millions from these people nor, for that matter, did Umberto Eco, nor Dan Brown from him:

[Umberto Eco's] second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, took eight years to write. It was about three editors at a Milan publishing house trying to link every conspiracy theory in history, including that now famous one about the medieval Knights Templar and the secret of the Holy Grail.

'I know, I know,' he says with a laugh. 'My book included the plot for The Da Vinci Code. But I was not being a prophet. It was old occult material. It was already all there. I treated it in a more sceptical way than Dan Brown did. He had the excellent idea of treating it as if it were true. Millions of people believed him. They took it seriously, but it was all a hoax.'

Another way to look at this form of benificent plagiarism is that if the plagiarism hadn't taken place, we wouldn't be reading the stolen material. I'd rather read Lytton Strachey's cameo of Florence Nightingale than Edward Wood's biography, which, as a TLS article showed last year, Strachey not only praised in the text, but whose opening Strachey used as his opening. Most people do prefer to read the Lytton Strachey version. Edward Wood's biography has essentially been lost, but Strachey salvaged for us the best parts of it. Stephen Moss's cento on plagiarism is not plagiarism for the reason that centos take work and create something new.

If it expands literature, if it builds on it, as Nabokov apparently did with a thoroughly half-assed witchy short story called Lolita, then it's fruits are clearly fruitful. The fruits also show us when plagiarism is bad: when it allows a famous writer to coast; when it steals honor from people who deserve more of it; when it diminishes the cultural stock (as when Jayson Blair stole quotes from other newspapers) through dilution; when it results in someone getting richer at another person's expense. We tend to remember the examples of brilliant transmogrifications of lifted material when we defend plagiarism and forget the scuzzy lowlife lifting and theft in the journalistic and obscure academic worlds which represent the most cases of plagiarism and which also cause the most harm.